Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Mental Fragments, Mental Fractals....

The last few days, I've been converting an OCR'ed text of William Price's Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County into sensible and legible text, then loading it into Drupal a bit at a time at Pocahontas County History. I'm working my way through the 400-plus pages of genealogical information first, because that is the portion most desired by genealogists and least accessible to Internet search engines. It's also the least enjoyable reading for those of us not seeking to understand a particular family's ancestral relationships. Lists of marriages, sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, interspersed with the unfortunate fatal accidents and illnesses which ended their various's not as much fun as you might imagine.

At the same time I've been doing some supplemental reading for the chemistry course I'm teaching. (Fragmented? I try to tell myself it's my free-ranging intellect, but I keep picturing free-ranging chickens....)

In any case, I read this very exciting article: Can fractals make sense of the quantum world? illustrated with the pretty cauliflower picture above. I believe it's there to illustrate a fractal pattern rather than quantum mechanics, but according to Dr. Tim Palmer, fractal mathematics may eventually resolve the puzzles that quantum theory poses.

Quantum theory just seems too weird to believe. Particles can be in more than one place at a time. They don't exist until you measure them. Spookier still, they can even stay in touch when they are separated by great distances.

Einstein thought this was all a bit much, believing it to be evidence of major problems with the theory, as many critics still suspect today. Quantum enthusiasts point to the theory's extraordinary success in explaining the behaviour of atoms, electrons and other quantum systems. They insist we have to accept the theory as it is, however strange it may seem.

But what if there were a way to reconcile these two opposing views, by showing how quantum theory might emerge from a deeper level of non-weird physics?

If you listen to physicist Tim Palmer, it begins to sound plausible. What has been missing, he argues, are some key ideas from an area of science that most quantum physicists have ignored: the science of fractals, those intricate patterns found in everything from fractured surfaces to oceanic flows....

Take the mathematics of fractals into account, says Palmer, and the long-standing puzzles of quantum theory may be much easier to understand. They might even dissolve away....

It is an argument that is drawing attention from physicists around the world. "His approach is very interesting and refreshingly different," says physicist Robert Spekkens of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. "He's not just trying to reinterpret the usual quantum formalism, but actually to derive it from something deeper."

That Palmer is making this argument may seem a little odd, given that he is a climate scientist working at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting in Reading, UK. It makes more sense when you learn that Palmer studied general relativity at the University of Oxford, working under the same PhD adviser as Stephen Hawking....

"It has taken 20 years of thinking," says Palmer, "but I do think that most of the paradoxes of quantum theory may well have a simple and comprehensible resolution."

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